Are we falling or flying?

white trilliumThe morning of our last day in Iceland, our bags were packed and sitting by the end of the bed, travel clothes piled carefully on top. My husband turned on his phone and I heard him exhale and darkly scoff. It got my attention and when I asked him what was going on he told me that Dean Potter had died in a base jumping accident in Yosemite.

Dean and I were the same age, born only 4 months apart. I never met him, but he was a household name among those of us who worked in the outdoor education realm in college and after. We hiked and camped, skied and paddled, climbed ice and rock, and followed the exploits and careers of the up and coming climbers of our generation: Dean Potter and Steph Davis, Tommy Caldwell and Beth Rodden, Katie Brown and Chris Sharma.

Dean started out as a climber then a free soloist, started slacklining and then highlining, and then base jumping and wingsuit flying, ultimately combining all three of these pursuits (his Three Arts) into parachute supported/protected gravity defying meditation. One of the first rememberances I read about Dean started with something like “its hard to imagine a world without Dean Potter”. Actually I beg to differ. It’s not at all hard to imagine a world without a man who regularly jumps from cliff tops, tight rope walks and free solos thousand foot walls. Anyone who was shocked by Dean Potter’s death had never thought about it clearly. What’s hard to imagine a world where some one could do all these things hundreds of times and get away with it, but that is the world we want to live in, so we let ourselves believe that it is possible.

Since learning of his death, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, or him. I realized that it’s because I hadn’t come to a conclusion about how I felt about it, or him. I thought I was leaning towards cautious respect, mixed with the suspicion that I wouldn’t actually have liked him. What I’ve learned in the interim from reading interviews and some of his writing is that I have a great deal of respect for him and feel quite sorry for the loss of him. None of us are without flaws, this includes the Dark Wizard of Yosemite, but in reading his words directly I found a humanity that was and is starkly lacking in the story the advertising/media juggernaut has constructed.

In choosing to base jump or highline or free solo, you choose to endanger your own life, which is the only thing you have that is really your own. In Dean’s own words, he took this risk seriously and thoughtfully, and while he took breaks after the death of friends, ultimately the risk did not stop him permanently. What I don’t understand, what he may have talked about publically in a place I didn’t find, or may have never discussed in the magazines, is the ramification of the risk. In my opinion you do have to remember all the other people you involve in your choice, regardless of whether or not you want their involvement. Your spotters, loved ones, friends and family, your dog. The search and rescue personal who looked for you at day break, the helicopter crew who spotted you, the men and women who had to scrape up your broken bodies and lower you down to the valley floor. The trauma of people who are left in your wake is one of the consequences of your art. Can you honestly say that it made the world a better place? Maybe the answer is yes. Maybe the answer is no. For someone who led such an apparently examined and conscious life, I can’t imagine he never weighed the answer to that question. All we have to go on are his actions. He kept soloing, he kept jumping, which tells me he thought what he was doing was worth it, or he thought that he could control the risk. Can any of us truly control the risk? No matter what our pursuit? He talked multiple times about wondering if he was more careful than the 25 base jumpers that died in 2014, or just lucky. In the absence of a clear answer to this the only way to probe the question was to keep going.

I’ve never basejumped or been sky diving and I can say with certainty that I never will. I dislike speed and the sensation of free fall, but in the 21rst century Red Bull fueled global outdoor recreation culture, it is hard to admit that. I will say that I believe it is as easy to get addicted to the neurochemicals (endogenous opiates and adrenaline) created by our own bodies as it is to get addicted to the opiates in heroin or oxycontin. Dean himself talked about craving the high of jumping in clear and unambiguous terms. Anyone who thinks this isn’t part (definitely not all) of the equation is fooling themselves.

All we have, in the end, is our own life, and its up to us how we spend it. I in no way can fault Dean Potter for living how he lived; we all have to make choices about what we give our selves over to. Some of us give our selves to other people, our spouses, our children, the less fortunate. Others lay themselves at the feet of art, or science, or money or power. From what I can tell Dean gave him self over to the pursuit of the human condition. Last year he wrote a piece in which he said he wanted to die peacefully of old age, which is how I hope to go as well. From what I have read of his own writing, its pretty clear he didn’t want to go out by base jumping, or slack lining, or free soloing. So many people say that they just want to die doing what they love, but while Dean acknowledged that the universe might have something else planned for him, he never said anything about wanting to die with his boots (or parachute) on. I think this is an easy sentiment to espouse when you your risks are few. When you actually touch mortal risk daily, you think more about dying in your sleep as an old man, with your dog and your partner by your side.

I hate to fly, this is one area where Dean and I disagree about what we should be doing with our bodies. As I prepared to board the plane that would take me 37,000 feet in the air above the north Atlantic, Greenland, Canada and home, I thought about Dean’s pursuit of flight. One of the critiques of Dean stated that he wasn’t flying, he was falling. I think that is true. But we’re all falling. From the moment we first stand up, from the moment of our first step. What is running but controlled falling? We spend our entire lives controlling the fall, or trying to. Dean spent his life exploring the outer edge of how much control we actually have over the fall. Now we know. Now we know.

Dean Potter found something he wanted to dedicate his life to. May we all be so lucky.


Sarah O'Malley

About Sarah O'Malley

Sarah is a science educator, naturalist, writer, tide pool fanatic and burgeoning obsessive trail runner. From personal experience she believes strongly in the restorative power of contact with nature, especially experiences that make your heart beat a little faster or get your hands and feet dirty. She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula with her husband and two dogs.